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  • Jennifer Gillen

In Defense of Beauty in Art

Updated: Oct 7, 2021


What a heartbreaking week of news stories. From terrible scenes of people trying to escape Afghanistan to natural disasters throughout the US. Oh, and then there’s the pandemic. When I enter my safe little studio and work on my paintings, it often occurs to me how far I am from all the hurt and trouble in the world. This often makes me feel amazingly guilty. I don’t have a unique political message to convey with my art. I have nothing deeply philosophical or emotional to add substance to my work. But, I do have a strong purpose for creating. My paintings are meant to bring love and beauty to others. It’s the only gift I have to bring.


Creating work for the sake of making something beautiful is a risk these days. That might seem weird to say. On the outside it looks like the least risky thing to paint. What’s the risk in painting a pretty flower? The risk is actually a result of art history. When Marcel Duchamp introduced a urinal as art, the idea of what constitutes art changed. The world of art criticism began to look for messages and originality. What does an artist say or create that is new and important? How does the artist use her voice? Beauty became an afterthought and even, a sign of having nothing important to contribute other than a copy of what already exists in the world. At its worst, beauty in art is a symbol of being out of touch with the harsh realities of the present times.


Unfortunately, it can feel condescending if someone says my art is pretty. If that comment comes from someone who is creating art with a strong voice, what I hear is that my work is trite and unimportant. As a young art student, I tried to play into the academic art scene. I created bold and disturbing charcoal art about women’s equality. The idea was to build enough substance into my work that would get me through the critiques of my peers and professors. But my heart wasn’t in it. I really just wanted to learn how to draw beautiful figures and perfect shadows in the folds of their garments. What I loved then, and what still inspires me, is sharing a sense of awe and a moment of transcendence through art.


Beauty can help us to transcend the ugly realities of the world. Even if it’s momentary, helping someone to pause, breathe and receive a visual gift of color and form is important to me. It can transform a mindset. My dentist plays a video of a coral reef in the lobby of her clinic. Watching the water, the gorgeous movement and the color of the fish helps me to relax before a treatment. This is what I hope to contribute to others by creating art based on beauty. I realize that I create from a position of privilege. I have never stood in a drainage canal waiting to be evacuated. I have never walked for miles with a child to escape to a better country. But my heart breaks for people who have. I want to share with anyone who will look, sort of a visual hug. In my view, the world needs beauty now more than ever.


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